Southeast Asia’s Real Security Concern

By Zachary Abuza

Parched rice paddy in Vietnam. Source: Eltpics’ flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

A drought in the middle of monsoon season brought on by the El Niño effect has affected farmers across Southeast Asia, hampering economic growth and exacerbating political tensions between urban elites and farmers. Though rains have recently begun, reservoirs are at such low levels that they will not be refilled in a shortened season with average rainfall. A record level of paddy has gone unplanted, and where the fall crop has been planted, seedlings have withered in parched paddy.

In Vietnam, the worst drought in 40 years has affected 301,000 acres and made 124,000 acres completely non-arable. In Ninh Thuan Province, 34 percent of farmland is affected and the province has become the first to declare a state of emergency, requiring national level assistance. Reservoirs in that province are at 10 percent. Only 60 percent of the 2015 fall rice crop will be planted. The Central Highlands, which account for over 60 percent of Vietnam’s coffee exports, are being hard hit, with at least 40 percent of the crop damaged. In May, Dak Lak Province experienced an 86 percent decline in rainfall from the previous year.

In neighboring Laos and Cambodia, the situation is almost as bad. In Laos, over 257,000 acres of rice paddy and nearly 2,500 acres of upland crops have been affected. Cambodia’s Kampong Chhang, the country’s rice belt, is experiencing its worse drought in years. The monsoon rains supply 75 percent of the country’s water and the Tonle Sap River is well below average.

The drought in Thailand, where some 40 provinces have been affected, is the worst in 10 years. Currently only 13 provinces are experiencing drought, seven severely, including key rice growing regions, affecting 5,035 villages or 6.7 percent of the total. The government deployed troops along the Chao Phraya River to prevent farmers from illegally pumping water to save their parched crops. In early July, there were warnings that Bangkok had only 30 days of water left unless rains began.

The lack of rainfall is not limited to mainland Southeast Asia. Indonesia is experiencing its worst drought in five years, affecting 80 percent of the country, destroying 61,000 acres of crops. In Central Java, alone, 68,000 acres of paddy are on the verge of being lost. With the dry season extended to November, the government expects crop failure in 10-20 percent of total farmland. The Philippines is bracing for a six month dry spell affecting 50 percent of the country, its worst drought since the 1997-98 El Niño. The most affected regions will experience a 60 percent reduction in rainfall. By May 2015, the government had already declared a state of calamity in eight provinces. Planting for the summer crop fell by 2 percent to 5.2 million acres. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the rice yield will fall by 500,000 metric tons compared to last year.

Thailand’s Ministry of Finance has approved $1.77 billion in loans to support affected farmers, but the drought is expected to bring Thai gross domestic product growth – already underperforming – down by 0.52 percent, to 3 percent for 2015.

The Vietnamese government has already begun bailing out provinces. And while growth is expected to remain robust at 6.1 percent in 2015 and 6.2 percent in 2016, the decline in rice and coffee exports are expected to add to Vietnam’s growing trade deficit.

The drought also highlights regional food insecurity. The Thai government expects its rice crop to decline 14 percent in 2014, to 23.3 million tons—the smallest harvest in nine years. And overseas sales from Thailand, the world’s largest exporter, are expected to fall from 10 to 8 million tons. There are already some predictions that the price for 5 percent broken white rice could jump by 30 percent to $500 a ton. Vietnam, the world’s third largest rice exporter, saw exports in the first half of 2015 fall by over 9 percent.

The Philippines predicts a decline in rice production this year by 150,000 tons, to 18.85 million tons, and may revise it downward again as the drought intensifies. The Philippines, one of the largest importers of rice in the world, has already contracted to import 650,000 tons from Vietnam and Thailand and is currently negotiating with Myanmar. Indonesia will also need to increase imports, despite President Jokowi’s commitment to expand rice cultivation in 2015 by 4 percent by expanding cultivation by 1.2 million hectares, achieving self-sufficiency by 2017.

And with declining flows down the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Red, and Chao Phraya rivers – already low due to damming and glacial loss – salt water intrusion will further impact rice production in the fertile delta plains.

While the economic costs are clear, the political costs are harder to measure. In no country has the drought created serious challenges for the government. In Vietnam, for example, quick relief and compensation programs have stemmed unrest. If the government does not respond quickly in Indonesia, Jokowi’s administration could come under pressure.

The exception is Thailand where the drought has exacerbated the preexisting political fissures, used to justify the May 2014 coup, as urbanites continue to have their water resources protected at the expense of farmers who use 70 percent of the water. One recent editorial cartoon in the pro-establishment paper, The Nation, showed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in a tank, pinching the irrigation hose of a farmer while urbanites cavort with prostitutes in a hot tub; the implication is that Prayuth is punishing the farmers for voting for the ousted Pheu Thai Party.

Indeed, a government official recently blamed the water shortage on former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, retroactively impeached by the military-installed legislature, and on trial for corruption for the rice subsidy scheme that the Ministry of Finance claims led to over $15 billion in losses. That official claimed that the subsidies led to over planting, which was compounded by the drought. The disenfranchised Thai farmers won’t be persuaded by this argument, remaining convinced that the only party that addressed their needs has been thwarted by the military and royalist elites, and the urbanites who support them. The $1.1 billion loan program for low earners and farmers is deemed as insufficient and even punitive.

But most importantly the drought serves as a stark reminder that the single greatest threat to long-term peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia remains the cataclysmic impact of man-made climate change.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is principal of Southeast Asia Analytics, and writes on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Follow him on twitter @ZachAbuza.


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